New Blog!

To prevent this political blog from getting completely swallowed up by my Teacher Moments, I have created a new blog on which I will share such ruminations. Please see the sidebar!

Within the week, I will cross-post some of my recent reflections to the new site. As with this blog and the sci-fi blog, my posting frequency there should be once per week.

Making Sure Your Kids Can Read

I teach a lot of kids who, by Jerry Pournelle’s definition, can’t read. Oh, they can usually make out most of the common words, which allows them to muddle through their “grade level” reading assignments without much trouble. But if you hit them with a longer word – like, say, “discrimination” – they’re instantly stumped and need to ask me for its pronunciation. I also teach a lot of kids who are basically competent readers on the decoding and fluency level but have trouble processing and understanding meaning. These are the kids who will read that a scientist “uses the data she collects to analyze the greenhouse effect” and erroneously conclude that said scientist has somehow fixed the greenhouse effect.

The kids in the first group have a problem that is relatively easy to solve. They are, evidently, victims of incomplete, incompetent, or absent phonics curricula and are consequently unable to break an unfamiliar word down into its component pieces. The cure, quite simply, is to explicitly teach them the word analysis skills they are missing. Beyond “b says buh,” students also need to know that “-tion” says “shun,” “ph-” says “f-,” and “-ough” says “-oh” in some cases and “-uf” in others. They should also learn where these words come from; if a child knows, for example, that a word has a Greek origin, that’s a big hint as to how it should be pronounced (and spelled). And they should learn common prefixes, suffixes, and roots, which will allow them to decipher the pronunciations and  meanings of a whole host of more obscure terms.

The kids in the second group, on the other hand, have a more difficult – and, it seems, more common – deficiency. They are prone to making wild, illogical leaps while reading a passage about the greenhouse effect because, quite frankly, they don’t know anything about the greenhouse effect — beyond, perhaps, some vague suspicion that it has something to do with climate change (which, they’ve dutifully absorbed, is a bad, bad thing). They don’t know that, for the most part, it’s good that our nice, thick, substantial atmosphere can trap thermal radiation from the sun — that without the greenhouse effect, the ambient temperatures on Earth’s surface would not be so conducive to the development and maintenance of life.

We comprehend best when we can use prior knowledge as a scaffold; this is the solid finding of cognitive science and also a conclusion backed by common sense. I am an expert reader, by and large — but if I took a test that included, say, my co-author’s masters thesis on atmospheric wave packets, my typically high scores would no doubt plunge, as my background in earth science is surely inadequate for such a task.

Now, of course, most of our students aren’t going to go into climate research and therefore don’t need a masters-level understanding of atmospheric mechanics. But in order to read and apprehend materials published for the general public (as opposed to technical experts), kids do need quite a bit of basic scientific and cultural knowledge. Why? Because most writers assume that basic knowledge. They have to, or their prose would be turgid and, quite frankly, unreadable. Can you imagine what would happen if, instead of simply saying “Tom had the patience of Job” and being immediately understood, a writer had to add “who, by the way, was a person in the Old Testament who lost his livelihood and his good health and yet still maintained his faith in God”? Good Lord! All of our books would be thousands of pages long and would weigh fifty pounds a piece!

Unfortunately, a lot of my students have been inadequately exposed to our cultural patrimony, so the above-mentioned shorthand leaves them completely lost — even if they can decode every single word in the sentence “Tom had the patience of Job.” The reasons for this are legion, but I think one major contributing trend is our education establishment’s anxious desire to teach things that are “relevant” to our students. “Kids won’t be interested,” so the thinking goes, “if the material doesn’t somehow apply to their own lives.” But this is 180 degrees opposed to reality. In reality, kids are naturally curious about things that go far beyond their everyday experiences. Remember the sixth grader I mentioned a few articles back who went ape over the word “Brobdingnagian”?  He’s also recently developed an obsession with Greek mythology, a topic thousands of years removed from his 21st century existence. No — youth fantasy writers would not be making out like gangbusters if kids weren’t looking for ways to expand their horizons. Teach a bunch of seven-year-olds about ancient Egypt and they’ll jump all over it — provided you present it as a story and not as a list of discreet, tedious facts. It also helps to take advantage of innate peaks in student interest. First grade is a good time to introduce biology because children at that age – especially the boys – are endlessly fascinated by critters and beasts — and the tween years are a good time to do some basic chemistry and physics because kids then become interested in building things (and, in many cases, blowing them up).

But once again, I digress. Here’s the bottom line: If you are a parent (or a future parent) who wants to raise a proficient reader, there are two principal things you must do. First, you must teach your child phonics! Phonics is an indispensable first step for beginning readers; without it, they will always depend on others to sound out unfamiliar words and will never become self-sufficient. Secondly – and even more importantly – you must provide your child with a knowledge-rich and word-rich environment. Leave plenty of time open during the day for free reading — and reading aloud. Go on nature hikes. Go to the library. Go to museums (most of which are free or pay-what-you-can). Watch high quality educational programs. Don’t hothouse your children and drill them with flashcards (unless you’re going over the arithmetic tables); do take advantage of their built-in tendency to ask questions about the world and how it works.

Literacy, in my experience, requires cultural capital. Provide that capital, and your children will do well.  

The Dr. Russell Approach to Parenting

As of yet, I don’t have children, but one of my major life goals is to become a mother — and if I ever find a husband with whom I can share this enormous responsibility, I intend to parent like Dr. Russell.

For those of you who aren’t well-versed in the works of Robert A. Heinlein, Dr. Russell is the father of the protagonist in Have Space Suit, Will Travel, a juvenile science fiction novel that begins with the following exchange:

“Dad,” I said, “I want to go to the Moon.”

“Certainly,” he answered and looked back at his book. It was Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which he must know by heart.

I said, “Dad, please! I’m serious.”

This time he closed the book on a finger and said gently, “I said it was all right. Go ahead.”

“Yes… but how?”

“Eh?” He looked mildly surprised. “Why, that’s your problem, Clifford.”

The students at my day job are good kids, by and large; I run into genuine attitude problems very rarely.  Still, many collapse when faced with even a mild challenge. If it takes more than an instant to figure out how to solve, say, a geometry problem, they give up and ask for help. They don’t look back through their notes. They don’t start writing information down. They just — stop. Indeed, grappling with a difficult problem on their own will bring some of my students to tears.

What these kids are manifesting here, I feel, is the impact of helicopter parenting. When we wrap our children in cotton wool and shield them from adversity, we don’t get young adults who are happy and self-sufficient. On the contrary, we get young adults who are perpetually anxious and afraid of failure — hardly a recipe for success in either college or the working world, where self-motivated risk-takers are more likely to be rewarded.

So if and when I have kids, I’m going to adopt “Why, that’s your problem, Clifford” as my own personal motto. Once I teach my kids the critical basics – i.e., the three R’s and some basic research and self-help skills – any and all questions and requests will be handled the Dr. Russell way:

  • “Mom, what does [insert word] mean?” “How can we find out?”
  • “Mom, I don’t understand this math problem.” “Did you try looking at your notes in your math notebook?”
  • “Mom, I’m hungry.” “Hmm. What can you do about that?”
  • “Mom, I don’t have any clothes to wear!” “Well, you have this big pile of dirty laundry you can do something about…”
  • “Mom, can we get the new [insert cool YA series] book for my Kindle?” “Sure. Do you have the money to pay for it?” [beat] “Hmm. Guess you have to go out and do a little yard work for the neighbors.”

Mind you, this doesn’t mean I will be completely hands-off. As G.K. Chesterton observed, we need boundaries to feel secure — especially when we’re young. I will be establishing rules and expectations that carry consequences if they’re not met. I will also be setting a baseline homeschooling curriculum because there are certain things I feel every child should learn. But beyond that? As soon as possible, I’m going to get out of the way.  

Admittedly, part of the reason this approach appeals to me is that, given my rheumatoid arthritis, I just don’t have the spoons for over-protective modern parenting. But more importantly, I think pulling back and allowing my kids to figure things out on their own sends the implicit message that I trust them and believe them to be fully capable — which, I hope, will encourage them to stretch themselves intellectually and become the personally responsible, enterprising citizens America desperately needs.  

The State Makes a Lousy Substitute for a Parent

This particular blog will remain active while SABR Matt’s away. I can’t promise daily activity, but I do have new books to discuss and some other thinky-thoughts to share.

Speaking of which, here’s my first thinky-thought: The state makes a lousy substitute for a parent.

I bring this up because in my view, many of the moral panics of our age are driven by a cadre of activists who are asking the state to DO SOMETHING in the parent’s stead. Our kids are getting fatter? DO SOMETHING, mighty Leviathan! Smash all the vending machines! Ban all the bake sales and candy bar fundraisers! Or: Our kids are bullying each other? For God’s sake, DO SOMETHING! We need a federal anti-bullying initiative, and we need it right now!

Except in the first case, the vending machines and bake sales are sources of revenue for after-school activities. And in the second case, what can the federal government do exactly? Spend more money we don’t have on a program that will essentially be worthless?

Don’t get me wrong: I think obesity and bullying are serious issues for our children that require a serious response. But if you ask the government to step in, you will, by necessity, be saddled with an oppressive one-size-fits-all program – like a bake sale ban – that will leave no room for individual differences or individual judgment. Consider how the state has responded to school-based violent crime and sexual harassment. Thanks to “zero tolerance” programs, kids who bring butter knives in their lunch risk expulsion. And if six-year-old Timmy chases down a little girl and kisses her? Boy, will he be in trouble!

A parent, on the other hand, knows her children intimately and can tailor her approach precisely to their needs. For the record, while SABR Matt and I are heavy now, we were not fat when we were elementary-school-aged kids. That’s because we had a mom and a dad who insisted we eat our veggies before we got our one dessert and pushed us outside when the weather was decent.  And by the way, while they were at it, Mom and Dad also taught us to be nice. Consequently, SABR Matt and I both befriended kids who were not well-liked by the others. Since high school, for example, I’ve always had gay friends. While I believe gay marriage activists egregiously over-simplify the issues involved, I would never dream of expressing my disagreements through hateful mistreatment. Because I had two invested parents, I know that’s not the Christian thing to do.

Unlike the state, mommies and daddies can enforce healthy eating habits while also allowing for the occasional “special treat.” And unlike the state, mommies and daddies can teach their little ones that bullying is wrong without denigrating their religious traditions in the process. The problem is, our social policy is, at the present time, actively discouraging involved parenthood. And as people look upon the inevitable results of this insanity, they understandably cast about for “solutions.” If we rely on the government to swoop in and save the day, however, we will ultimately be handed “answers” that are dessicated and ineffective. No — the family is the best alternative. Unlike the plodding state, the family is vibrant, individual, and creative.   


Stupid Kill-Joys

They’re banning bake sales on school grounds in the People’s Republic of Massachusetts:

Bake sales, the calorie-laden standby cash-strapped classrooms, PTAs and booster clubs rely on, will be outlawed from public schools as of Aug. 1 as part of new no-nonsense nutrition standards, forcing fundraisers back to the blackboard to cook up alternative ways to raise money for kids.

Everything in moderation, people. The occasional cupcake or slice of pizza is not going to kill our kids.

You want to know why our children are getting fat? I can think of two main reasons:

  1. We live in an anti-child culture in which the adults are so busy with their own “self-actualization” that they don’t have time to teach their little ones proper eating habits.
  2. Also, today’s parents are wusses. They’re too afraid to let their kids walk a few miles to school or – gasp! – play outside, and they’re definitely too afraid to say no to their precious little snowflakes.

If you want to stamp out obesity, maybe you should work on healing the family instead of growing the Nanny State.

The Little Things

This is a general plea to parents around this nation and the world at large.

We need to teach our children to pay attention to the little things.  I recognize that this world is difficult and that our time is limited and that we need to work more than we used to because taxes and fees take too much of our income and college tuition looms on the horizon and any of a hundred things forces us to work harder for the same relative pay.  I know it’s easier said than done to get your kids to listen to you when you emphasize the small niceties when other parents don’t teach their children the same lessons and they end up on the short end of the stick while more aggressive, ruder kids get whatever they want.  But we have got to fight our inner skeptic/pessimist and stand for a better world, and it’s just not enough to make sure your kid doesn’t do drugs or get prematurely pregnant or get into fights or break the law.  Those things are important, but we, as a nation, are forgetting just how important manners are…and it’s making all of us miserable and angry and cruel.

This was my day today, as measured in typical Long Island rudeness.

  • Woke up to find that my housemate had covered the bathroom floor in water (likely while he was getting dried off) instead of toweling off while still in the tub and then putting his towel down before he got out of the shower (something I always…ALWAYS…do)…forcing me to change my socks again (they were fresh…I had just put them on the previous night before bed).
  • On the way out the door, I encountered five (!) straight cars running the stop signs on my street, the last of which annoyed me enough that I walked out right in front of him and held up my hands to stop him.  He beeped at me.  For forcing him to obey the law long enough for me to get across the road to my friend’s car to get to work.
  • While driving to work, we were nearly run off the road because a guy on his f***ing cell phone tried to change lanes while we were next to him.
  • We had to park behind our department in the dirt lot on the opposite side of South Campus because dental school students (whose lot is partially under construction) feel that they should be allowed to park illegally rather than do what they’re supposed to do and park at South P Lot and take the 2-minute bus ride back to South Campus (the shuttle that passes South P every five friggin’ minutes).
  • Twenty minutes after I got to work, the custodian bugged us again asking to borrow money (he is completely incapable of managing his money and always comes seeking assistance…my office mate and I were both dumb enough to help him in the past and now we’re his bank).  Feeling obliged once again to lend him money, I handed him a ten, because when we say no, he grumbles at us like we’re un-Christian for refusing to offer charity at his command.
  • An hour later, a group of at least seven SoMAS (my department) students and their adviser felt the inexplicable need to stop in the lobby right outside my office door and have a conversation for fifteen minutes at about 100 decibels about their next lab meeting.  Why they couldn’t have that conversation outside or in their lab is anyone’s guess, but I finally got up and politely asked them to leave.  My girlfriend informs me that if I make a habit of asking for quiet in the hall outside my door, I’ll be seen as an ogre, for some reason.
  • When I went to lunch, it was very crowded at the local cafe and a mob of dental school students (and one professor) refused to stand in a single-file line, were badgering the employees about the lack of prepared lunch specials and three of them cut in line at the invitation of their friends (who were ahead of me).  I don’t care if all you want is a coffee or a cup of soup, you don’t get to cut in line just because your order is simple.  Even Steve (the guy at the counter) was annoyed at the constant line-cutting and mob-mentality of the dental school patrons…especially since they are rude to him when he doesn’t get their orders instantly.  Some of the professors are even known to simply walk behind the counter and fill their own drinks and throw money at Steve to pay for them because God knows…they’re too important to stand in line for ten minutes.  After the third person cut me…they had the gall to look at me and my office mate and simply say “sorry, we’re line-jumping,” and then place their orders.
  • The mob at Chock Full of Nuts was so disorganized that it was nearly impossible to walk back out of the store after I got my food and when I said “excuse me” to the customers in my way they’d move, but give me the stink eye for daring to interrupt their conversation.  To which I finally snapped and barked back “Let’s try standing single file and delaying those all-important circular conversations until you’re out of the store, OK?”  And then put my head down and rammed my way through the crowd like a offensive lineman through would-be tacklers (the Japanese would call this the Gaijin Slam).  Yes…it was rude of me…but this is what happens!  You act rudely to me all day and eventually, I’m going to lose my temper!
  • But of no…it’s not over!  About 3 PM, our self-important fellow SoMAS grad student from the chemical oceanography program (whose name I will omit for her sake because I’m not rude) showed up to talk our ear off four nearly half an hour even though all three of us in the office clearly had our heads down and were trying to work.  My nerves having already been weakened by the constant barrage of rudeness, I finally exited, lying that I was going to the bathroom, and went to kick rocks around in the woods behind South Campus for a few minutes to relax.  The only way I was going to avoid yelling at this girl for constantly thinking only of herself and her emotional needs and not respecting that this is a workplace environment and we have things to do.
  • And…on the way home, I saw the campus police had someone pulled over and they were out of their car red-faced and screaming at the poor officer for daring to give them a ticket.  This didn’t affect me directly, but it certainly is emblematic of everything that is wrong with Long Island in particular and this country in a more general sense.
I spent the majority of my day feeling stressed and unhappy because a collection of oblivious, privileged, self-absorbed people didn’t know enough about observing basic manners to make me feel like I was living in a civil society.  Each incident couldn’t be observed as anything more than a little thing…a small injury at best…and there are people out there who have better self-discipline than I do who can take all of these things in stride and not react.  But we’re creating a selfish, brutal world the longer we fail to teach our children that manners matter, that rules exist for a very real reason, and that what they do affects other people in ways they couldn’t possibly imagine.
Every decision we make has a consequence.  When you can’t be bothered to endure a little mist while smoking your cigarette and therefore light up right outside the door, you may not notice it, but there’s a good chance you’re darkening someone else’s day just a little – someone like me who has a mild allergy to smoke.  When you toss your garbage out the window of your car, you figure…it’s just a little thing.  But the guys who do roadside clean-up pick up thousands of pieces of litter daily that amount to far more than a little inconvenience.  When you feel that your conversation at a local cafe or in a school corridor is more important than the free movement of others nearby and so stand in a wide circle blocking the path, people may find ways around you, but there’s a good chance many of them are annoyed and spend the next minute or two with a negative emotion…maybe it makes them more prone to fail to notice someone who needs the door held for them.  Maybe it causes them to say something unkind or fail to answer a greeting in the hall.  The little things add up.
I don’t think I have some unusual level of rage…I think I’ve developed into a person with a reasonable level of emotional maturity and poise overall.  But I spent a huge chunk of my day unhappy because of the little things.  I beg you all…teach your children to care about others and to be conscious of their actions.  It just takes persistence and consistency from you…it doesn’t even take a lot of time each day to reinforce this message.
Thank you.

Speaking of People Who Need to Get a Grip When It Comes to Parenting…

Children to be banned from blowing up balloons, under EU safety rules
@ the UK Telegraph

The EU toy safety directive, agreed and implemented by Government, states that balloons must not be blown up by unsupervised children under the age of eight, in case they accidentally swallow them and choke.

Despite having been popular favourites for generations of children, party games including whistles and magnetic fishing games are to be banned because their small parts or chemicals used in making them are decreed to be too risky.

Apparently harmless toys that children have enjoyed for decades are now regarded by EU regulators as posing an unacceptable safety risk.

For heaven’s sake! No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to create a completely risk-free world. So why don’t you nanny-state bureaucrats quit raining on everyone’s parade?

Let Your Kids Eat Their Halloween Candy

What To Do With the Halloween Candy? Eat It.
@ Slate

With the approach of Halloween comes annual onslaught of parenting anxiety provoking articles on the question of “What to do with the Halloween candy?” Approaches to the bucket of sugary goodness are varied. The Washington Post’s excellent parenting blogger, Janice D’Arcy, has an expert dishing up many of them today: trade the candy for a toy. Allow your kids to enjoy “a few favorites” and then tuck the rest away. On the Huffington Post, the advice is for dieting parents, but it’s similar: let them eat some, “donate” the rest. The Kansas City Star adds some fun ideas about reading the nutrition facts on the back of the bars together and using Halloween as an opportunity to talk about “healthy and not-so-healthy foods.” No one supports super-restriction. Let kids “indulge a bit” is the preferred advice. Because that’s a lot of candy. Clearly we have to do something.

I have a radical suggestion. How about we let them eat it?

Heh. Yes, people seriously need to relax. One candy binge a year is not going to damage your kids for life.